Service to remember blues legend Jesse Anderson

Jesse Anderson, a blues legend who lived in Wichita, died July 3.
Jesse Anderson, a blues legend who lived in Wichita, died July 3. Courtesy

For many years, he was known as the “Ow-Wow” Man.

Jesse Anderson was a gifted musician whose funky blues melodies were played by Boz Scaggs and the Blues Brothers. He toured with the likes of B.B. King, Etta James and Otis Rush and performed at the Apollo Theater in New York City many times.

Mr. Anderson – singer, songwriter, guitarist and saxophonist – died July 3 after a longtime battle with diabetes, cancer and pneumonia. He was 73.

A remembrance service will be at 3 p.m. July 19 at the Hillside Funeral Home West Chapel, 2929 W. 13th St.

“He was always an eagle and never a sparrow,” said Monica “Mo” Modena, his long-time companion. “If you are familiar with astrology, he was a 200 percent Leo who was king of the jungle wherever he was. He loved attention. And when he walked into a room, everybody paid attention because he had that huge, huge smile that lit up the room. But he never, ever felt like he arrived. He was one of those people who would strive for more and more and more.”

He was born Octiver Jesse Anderson on Aug. 21, 1940, in Paris, Ark.

Growing up, he was sometimes bullied at school until a teacher heard him sing, said Pat O’Connor, author of “Wichita Blues: Discovery,” who featured Mr. Anderson in the 1998 book. “It is remarkable how such a teacher can have an influence.”

The teacher encouraged him to sing.

The Anderson family then moved to Tulsa from Arkansas, and by the time Mr. Anderson was 14, the family had moved again, this time to Wichita. It was 1954. By then, he was performing at school functions and church and civic productions.

“According to him, Wichita was supposed to be the promised land because there were a lot of blues musicians that moved up here,” O’Connor said.

As a teen, Mr. Anderson played at Flagler Gardens at 29th and Wabash, O’Connor said.

But he was also known for participating in a talent show at the Dunbar Theater where he sang Johnnie Ray’s “The Little White Cloud That Cried.” According to Modena, Mr. Anderson won the talent show eight weeks in a row and after that, the organizers refused to let him compete – for fear other contestants wouldn’t go up against him.

He was a self-taught musician who would frequent Jenkins Music in Wichita. It was there he fell in love with a beautiful saxophone in the store’s window. One day, he didn’t see it, Modena said. Fearing it had been sold, he went in, where a sales clerk pointed it out to him. He played “Harlem Nocturne.” Customers and staff stood and watched. When he was finished playing, Modena said, the sales clerk said he had to have the instrument. She fixed him up with a payment plan and co-signed the loan herself.

“He paid it off; he was only a teenager,” Modena said.

When he was 19, Mr. Anderson left Wichita for Muskogee, Okla., where he joined Willie Wright & His Sparklers. The band traveled to Chicago to start a recording career, according to Modena. His mother sent him off with a frying pan, a bag of potatoes and several cans of pork and beans.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Anderson recorded his own songs with Federal, Chess and Thomas Records. He co-wrote “Somebody Loan Me a Dime,” used in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers.” His biggest hit was “I Got a Problem” whose lyrics depicted the problems of loving more than one woman at once, punctuated with him singing, “Ow-Wow.”

In the late 1970s, Mr. Anderson returned to Wichita to help raise his two youngest daughters. He formed the band Jesse Anderson & The Steamrollers and played at area clubs, such as Indigo and Soggy Bottom. He also opened Sonny Boyz Blues & BBQ at 3838 W. Douglas.

“The first night I heard him sing, I went up to him and told him, ‘You are so magnificent; what are you doing in Wichita, Kansas?” Modena said. “His reply was, ‘Meeting you.’ ”

There were together for 16 years.

Besides music, Mr. Anderson took delight in passing information on to other people, Modena said. He took theology and horticulture classes and cooking lessons. He served as a chef for the Holiday Inn in downtown Wichita during the 1970s.

Besides Modena, Mr. Anderson is survived by his four daughters, Jazell, Fawnette, Des Moines and Nicole, 11 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his mother, Mable Anderson, and daughter Chiffon.